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Twenty minutes of terror in the sky: the emergency landing of Southwest Flight 1380

For those on board, the peril would play out for what felt like hours.

Marty Martinez, left, with other passengers after a jet engine blew out on the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737.
Marty Martinez, left, with other passengers after a jet engine blew out on the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737.Read moreMarty Martinez / AP

Anna Montie, a passenger aboard Southwest Flight 1380, was watching an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia on her laptop when she heard a loud thud.

The plane rocked like it had hit a giant pothole in the sky.

A man behind her screamed.

The takeoff Tuesday had been uneventful, the Boeing jet flying out of New York City's LaGuardia Airport, rising toward 32,500 feet, heading to Love Field in Dallas carrying 144 passengers and a crew of five.

Then the left engine blew apart, firing metal fragments into the plane and punching out a window, passengers said. The two-engine 737 lurched down and hard to the left, its left wing nearly pointing at the ground. Smoke and debris blew in through the hole.

Oxygen masks dropped as the cabin lost pressure. People began to scream. And weep.

"This is bad, like really bad," thought passenger Timothy Bourman, a 37-year-old pastor from New York City.

Some passengers heard the commotion, but couldn't see what was happening:

In Row 14, Jennifer Riordan, 43, had been sucked partially through the now-open window headfirst. Desperate passengers clung to her, trying to drag her back. Riordan, a Wells Fargo bank executive and mother of two, had been making her way home to New Mexico.

Passenger Tim McGinty, in a cowboy hat, wouldn't let go of Riordan, USA Today reported. But he also wasn't able to move her.

Andrew Needum, a firefighter from Celina, Texas, grabbed hold and helped to pull Riordan back inside, this time successfully.

Blood was everywhere. A flight attendant started to cry.

Needum and passenger Peggy Phillips, a retired nurse from Dallas, pulled off their oxygen masks and began performing CPR on Riordan.

"It just wasn't going to be enough," Phillips later told the newspaper.

Montie, 23, who was heading home to Dallas, sat three rows in front of the shattered window. She knew her life was over.

"I wasn't praying for the plane to land safely. We were past that. I was praying to be accepted into heaven."

Anna Montie, passenger

"I wasn't praying for the plane to land safely," she said by phone. "We were past that. I was praying to be accepted into heaven."

It was so loud inside the plane, like white noise on steroids. The cabin smelled like fire. A woman two rows in front of Montie was becoming hysterical. A crew member grabbed her: "Look at me," she told the woman. "You are going to be fine. I promise you."

Montie thought of her mother's face — and how it would look when she learned her daughter was dead. She thought of her friends attending her funeral. And of her nephew, not yet 2, who would never know her.

In the cockpit, multiple alerts and warnings sounded around the pilot, Tammie Jo Shults.

As one of the Navy's first female fighter pilots, she had served in a tactical electronic warfare squadron out of Point Mugu, Calif., that helped train ship crews to respond to Soviet missile threats.

Now, she talked to air traffic control about what was happening inside on the plane and to prepare for an emergency landing.

Her tone was as calm and flat as a pond.

No one yet knew it, but the No. 13 fan blade — out of 24 total — had separated from the hub at the base. Investigators would find evidence of metal fatigue.

Falling to Earth

Now parts of its broken engine were falling to Earth. Investigators would find a cowl, a piece that surrounds the engine, in Berks County, about 70 miles north of Philadelphia.

Kathy Farnan, 77, had been looking forward to getting home to the high desert of Santa Fe, N.M. — the name means "Holy Faith" — as she sat on the aisle in Row Three. As the extent of the danger became clear, Farnan stayed calm.  She held the hand of a younger woman in the next seat, trying to reassure her.

A passenger stood with his lower back pressed against the jagged window. It made no difference, but the pressure inside and outside soon equalized.

You do not panic. You are trained for this.

No transcript has been released that describes Shults' first steps after the explosion. But Robert Hulse, a retired Continental Airlines pilot and former Navy pilot, has lost engines twice before. He explained by phone: Both pilot and co-pilot would have felt a jolt, then automatically checked their dials.

"You do not panic. You are trained for this."

The priority, he said, is to get the plane level, contact air-traffic control, and divert to an airport.

On board, three rows in front of the missing window, Jim Demetros texted his wife, Cindy, in Stamford, Conn:

"There was an emergency, problems with the plane, and I love you and the kids."

Matt Tranchin, 34, of Dallas, carefully considered what would be his last words to his wife, pregnant with their first child, and to his parents.

The simplest phrasing seemed best. He told them goodbye, and that he loved them.

For those on board the peril would play out for what felt like hours.

Only that morning, passenger Marty Martinez, 29, had taken to Facebook to celebrate the contacts he'd made on a quick business trip and how that would help Social Revolt, his Dallas-based digital marketing agency.

"I'd say this 24-hour trip to NYC was successful," he wrote at 10:33 a.m.

At 11:03, the plane was cruising at 32,580 feet when the engine came apart. One minute later, it had dropped to 29,300. Two minutes later, at 11:06, it was at 21,500 feet.

The yellow cup of an oxygen mask covering his mouth, Martinez took out his cellphone, purchased WiFi service, and went live on Facebook — certain this was the end.

"Something is wrong with our plane!" he typed. "It appears we are going down! Emergency landing!! Southwest flight from NYC to Dallas!!"

A grainy, intermittent Facebook video shows him looking stricken.

At 11:14, with the plane now diverting to Philadelphia, air traffic control and the pilot talked out what was happening:

ATC: Southwest 1380, you'll be landing 2 7 left, 2 7 left today, and you just let me know when you need to turn base. Right now, I only have one person in front of you, which is a Southwest, but I'm sure he'll pull off if you need to go right in.

Shults: OK.

A minute later:

ATC: Southwest 1380, I understand your emergency. Let me know when you want to go in.

Shults: Yeah, we have, uh, part of the aircraft missing, so we're going to need to slow down a bit.

ATC: Southwest 1380, speed is your discretion. Maintain any altitude above 3,000 feet, and you let me know when you want to turn base.

Shults: All right, down to 3,000 [inaudible].

ATC: Absolutely, you just let me know anything you need.

At 11:16:

ATC: Southwest 1380, turn, uh, just turn southbound there.… Start looking for the airport, it's off to your right and slightly behind you there and, uh, altitude is your discretion.

At 11:17:

Shults: OK, could you have the medical meet us there on the runway as well? We've got, uh, injured passengers.

ATC: Injured passengers, OK. And are you — is your airplane physically on fire?

Shults: No, it's not on fire, but part of it's missing. … They said there was a hole and, uh, someone went out."

The controller's voice catches for a half-second.

ATC: Um, I'm sorry, you said there was a hole and somebody went out? … So the airport's just off to your right, report it in sight, please.

Shults: Southwest 1380, airport's in sight.

The cabin was now largely silent. Everyone wore oxygen masks.

Flight attendants ordered passengers to brace for impact. People could see water below.

‘We are almost there’

"Everybody breathe!" a crew member yelled, in a video posted by a passenger. "We are almost landing. Everybody breathe. We are almost there."

The plane, shaking hard, rushed toward the runway. "Brace! Brace!" some shouted. Others hollered encouragement.

Over the sound system: "Heads down! Stay down!"

The plane came in fast, about 165 knots, or 190 mph, instead of the typical 135 knots. The wheels touched and rolled. Emergency vehicles surrounded the aircraft. Riordan, the Albuquerque bank executive, would soon be pronounced dead — killed, according to the Philadelphia medical examiner, by "blunt impact trauma of the head, neck, and torso."

Others were treated for minor injuries.

"I didn't even feel the landing," Montie said. "I heard someone clapping, and I looked up and we were on a tarmac."

She immediately called her mother.

"Where are you?" her mother asked.

"I don't know," Montie responded. "But we're fine. That's the thing. We're fine."

Staff writers Mari A. Schaefer, Jan Hefler, Erin McCarthy, Jason Laughlin, and Tauhid Chappell contributed to this article.